Viva Las Vegas

Las Vegas: An Unconventional History” is an American Experience 2-part film premiering on PBS November 14 and 15, 2005. Here’s the site.

It’s a fun story about a place that seems like a shallow joke. But the beauty of the film is that while there is plenty of goofy kitsch–Rat Pack, 1970s tourism commercials–these segments immediately swoop into serious history–Boulder Dam, Bugsy Siegel–or a combination of the two–above ground atomic testing (yes, this can be kitschy when casinos sell postcards of mushroom clouds, have Miss Atomic contests and ring bells at dawn to usher their patrons outside for a viewing of a scheduled test).

There are also these wonderful contemporary stories of “ordinary” people that the filmmakers called LVMs (Las Vegas Monologues). In them you hear why Las Vegas has grown so much in the last century and why people continue to move to the desert from California and elsewhere. Easy to find a well paid job with a high school education; housing is affordable–it sounds like the promised land. But then you hear from the guy who is in Gamblers Anonymous and waiting to be sentenced for a hold-up and the school superintendent who worries that so many of her kids have changed schools during the year and you see the flipside of rapid growth based on one industry. One great vignette shows a guy whose ranch has been around a long time get on his horse and ride out of the pen and instantly he’s on a suburban street that looks like Anytown, USA. Weird.

I wrote a couple parts of the site (one about architecture has my byline) but for this one I functioned as Editorial Producer. This is usually Maria Daniel‘s job but she was on maternity leave this summer. So, I got to spend a couple days a week at WGBH to coordinate the site. It was eye-opening.

First of all, the people I worked with were great. Super dedicated and really clever. I said something like, Hey, we should have a slot machine on the site, and a week later Joe Bunik had created a prototype with excellent graphics by Li Wei. And then they just kept improving on it, making the wheels look better and even making the results more randomized.

Second, the work was really fun. I got to work more on the Special Features and advise on the Gallery and other parts of the site that usually I barely contribute to (unless I submit a running list of trivia, like for The Fight, say).

Third, it was hard. I mean, I was working half time and it took a lot to make a site for one film; Maria does a few at a time, even as she writes grants for other new media projects and participates in management meetings and more. She’s amazing.

A couple more thoughts. The filmmakers have a companion book about Vegas. The highlights of the film are in there and also some great essays by different contributors (my favorites were excerpted on the website here). I was particularly excited about the Rat Pack piece because it was written by Max Rudin, publisher of the Library of America. They put out the excellent looking and definitive editions of, say, the complete Saul Bellow. Because I needed permission to excerpt, I had a chance to e-mail Max and thank him for contributing books each year to the graduation ceremony of the Clemente Course at Codman Square in Dorchester, where I usually teach (more on this in another post). A great gesture by Max that is perfect for a class on the Humanities.

The DVD can be bought at Amazon but there was talk before I left about having a contest where a couple random DVDs would have a “golden poker chip” that could be cashed in for a free weekend in Vegas. This led to a conversation where the Marketing Person intimated that Canada had silly regulations requiring some sort of math question. I mentioned that I grew up in Canada and remembered all those silly questions and that it made the contest a test of “skill” rather than a free lottery. Lesson: There are Canadians all around you!

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